What Is a Graven Image?
by Henry M. Morris III, D.Min. *
The concept of a graven or carved image1 in the second of the Ten Commandments is sometimes misunderstood.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
What exactly does God mean by this term?
- The main thrust of this commandment is that believers are not to worship anything that is earthly as a representation of God. The emphasis was on worshiping the idol, the image of an earthly thing, or the earthly thing itself in place of God. Idolatry is nearly always a major problem and downfall of God’s people—both then and now.
- The first four commandments involve the direction of how we should relate to God; the remaining six describe our relationship with each other.
- Although the Lord Jesus Christ is most certainly God in the triune Godhead and co-equal in every way to the Father and the Holy Spirit, in the incarnation Jesus became man so that the work of salvation could be completed. While He was on Earth, Jesus was most certainly physical—He was true man—and He clearly demanded worship of Himself and obedience to His teachings.2
- The first four commandments focus on Yahweh: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17). And these commandments specifically insist that there is nothing on Earth, or under Earth, or above Earth that could be like Yahweh, “who alone has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power. Amen” (1 Timothy 6:16). All attempts to make a physical representation of Yahweh’s eternal Being were forbidden and would result in capital punishment.
- The New Testament extends and applies idolatry to anything that is worshiped instead of God.3 The key is the worship of a thing or practice that takes the place of God. Attempting to portray the work of the Lord Jesus on Earth, in story form, is not worship or idolatry. That portrayal is merely an effort to tell the story of what Christ did while on Earth so that the gospel can be made clear and efficacious. Very few Christian groups use idols as a means to worship.
The Institute for Creation Research is known for holding to the literal words of Scripture in a day of “enlightened” science. We would never knowingly violate the words of Holy Scripture in any way. We are most careful in everything we produce. No picture or statue of the Lord Jesus as He was on Earth is idolatry—unless that image is used as something to worship.
Films portraying the life of Christ have helped win hundreds of thousands to the Kingdom over the years. If the actor portraying Jesus is an idol, then the Lord God would never bless and harvest through that medium. Such representations of the Lord Jesus on Earth are not graven images or idols—He was here and could be physically seen and touched (1 John 1:1). Even His resurrected body is still human in form. It is the “God [who] is Spirit” (John 4:24) who cannot be seen or represented in any physical form that is the focus of the second commandment.
- “Graven image” is used in the King James and Revised Standard translations and “carved image” in the New King James and English Standard translations.
- In Matthew 4:18-22, Christ called the four fishermen Peter, Andrew, James, and John as His disciples. They physically left their nets that very day and followed Christ’s person during His entire ministry.
- “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
* Dr. Morris is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Creation Research.
Cite this article: Henry M. Morris III, D.Min. 2017. What Is a Graven Image?. Acts & Facts. 46 (3).